"The Biggest Freak in the World" - Side Show's Bill Russell on Coming Out Among the Cowboys

By Bill Russell
10 Jun 2014

Bill Russell
Bill Russell

As part of Playbill.com's 30 Days of Pride, Tony Award-nominated Side Show librettist Bill Russell shares his story of coming out and how his small hometown responded.


I was born in Deadwood – as in Wild Bill Hickock, Calamity Jane and the HBO series – because my hometown, Spearfish, didn't have a hospital back then. Those towns are 12 miles apart in the Black Hills of South Dakota. My grandparents were cattle ranchers over the state line in Wyoming and everyone called my father "Cowboy."

In interviews about writing Side Show I'm frequently asked what drew me to the subject matter of conjoined twins and human oddities. And I always answer that growing up gay in macho cowboy country I felt like the biggest freak in the world so it wasn't much of a leap to relate to these unusual people.

I wasn't into sports in school and definitely had an effeminate affect, so I took a lot of abuse. One of my most humiliating moments was being nominated for homecoming queen in open assembly.

Though I knew I was attracted to men from a fairly young age, I fought it with everything I had in me. Thankfully, I lost that battle. I didn't come out until I was 23 — but then with a vengeance.

Spearfish High has an all-school reunion every five years. I attended the first one just when an album which featured my lyrics was released. I was writing for and managing and duo of women who went by the name Jade & Sarsaparilla (their album was recently re-released and is available at amoeba.com). They were phenomenally talented and beautiful and in a relationship which we started writing into. It was definitely edgy for them to be singing love songs to each other in the mid-70s.

Because of the album's release, the Rapid City Journal, the largest newspaper in western South Dakota, did an interview with me. And in it, I came out. I did the interview just before returning to Boston, where I was living at the time, and it was published after I'd left the area. I had told my father I was gay and he wasn't happy about it, but when it became public knowledge he went ballistic, left town for a few days and didn't speak to me for about three years.


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